I felt as if I were joining up with the past tense as my father slipped slowly through the veil of the present. We were 2000 miles apart in that moment, both of us asleep only to awaken in different dimensions.
My version of Edward Lorenz’ chaos theory, I guess, where my being asleep meant I would waken much as I always do but my father would discover a dimension beyond definition. I am now and he is forever there.
For every generation that passes so does a way of life that will never come again. No two moments or movements ever repeat, not exactly. They become history, the story of us, if we write it as it happened. Certainly, similar stories, events, and fashions reappear but Groundhog Day is entirely cinematic.
My dad’s generation had a work ethic of “showing up, no matter what.” He did not retire until he was 88, a man of extraordinary energy even in the last days of his battle with pancreatic cancer. He met each day with all he had. That was his work, I came to realize, much moreso than being a real estate agent or a geologic draftsman. Meeting the day mattered, no matter what.
I can’t say that my father’s work ethic was a fit for me—maybe I just didn’t have the shoulders for it. My adventures were not his, of course, his work ethic but a beacon, showing me the teeth of treacherous waters. I dashed more than one ship there—too foolish to be afraid—until I came to clarity, my constant through any storm. That became my life’s work.
Clarity, peace of mind, contentment, living in the moment—whatever words fit—is confining the mind to the task at hand. Wash the dish, dry the dish stops my ego from flashing past-future, future-past with scenarios that are nothing but a time suck. The dish is the moment, wet or dry. The flashbacks of “what if” will neither wash nor dry the dish. In fact, the dish may break from inattention.
One of the first things I learned in Zen Buddhism was the Buddha’s teaching of “all of life is suffering, and all I teach is the end of suffering.” I didn’t get it. What did he mean by suffering? And when it ends, then what? I am enough of my father’s daughter to want boundaries.
So, I went in search of the teaching, slowly stripping my being to its core, my suffering evaporating, thought by thought, as once again my father’s work ethic revealed itself: show up every day, no matter what. Ride the waves of the horrific and the humble without the “what might have been” scenarios of the ego. After all, they never happen. Life does.
My father may have peacefully passed but the ensuing ego whack-a-mole was one judgment after another. A dear friend reminded me of “the work” of Byron Katie, a way to unravel any thought my ego offers me—with four questions and a worksheet—a dismantling of my ego’s neat and tidy judgments that by now were an impressive pile.
Life is layered until it isn’t.
I faced my ego whack-a-mole with a completed worksheet and watched a few of Byron Katie’s free weekly events. The suffering surrounding my father’s death wasn’t that he died or that he had cancer. It was what was happening because he had died. If I did not sit in the stillness of clarity, I faced years of running down rabbit holes and probably a lot of broken dishes in my inattentiveness to wash the dish, dry the dish.
In his fight against pancreatic cancer, my father believed that massive doses of chemotherapy were his best chance at life. It was a longshot, this belief, but it gave him a way to define each day. It was “his work,” his kind of inquiry into the life he had left.
My father would live eight months, increasingly aware that his decision offered options he may not otherwise have known. He found joy just sitting in the stillness, listening to life, sometimes opening an eye to the waters of Puget Sound. He said his daily rosary contemplating its mysteries, as if they were anew.
“I should not have done as much chemotherapy,” he said to me one day. His tone was matter of fact, thoughtful, without regret. Inquiry only illuminates. His determination to live gave way to the love and wonder of just being alive until life waned.
“I don’t want to live anymore,” he told me in one of our daily conversations. And we discussed what he wanted to happen next. He would no longer be wheeled to his living room chair from the hospital bed that hospice had provided. Within a matter of days, his life force returned to the energy that animates us all.
His body was consumed by the cancer but his mind remained one of inquiry, a summons of courage to face reality and find the possible in the impossible until life no longer is.
As for me, I wash the dish, dry the dish. I do “the work.”